The Anatomy of Melancholy I

There was a lot of controversy when both Zadie Smith and Marisha Pessl received a great deal of coverage that centred on their appearance rather than their considerable talent. Bloggers and columnists were raising such a fuss over the fact that people were calling Smith and Pessl pretty; imagine if they had been discussed with the kind of attention to detail that Holbrook Jackson paid to Robert Burton in his introduction to the 1932 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, or even worse, drew the same sort of conclusions. Observe:

We know how he looked from his portraits, of which there are three […] From these sources we may compose a portrait of our English Democritus among his books in the agreeable setting of a famous and already venerable college: a thick-set, plumpish man, with dark brown beard of formal cut; there is a satiric glint in the large eyes, and intelligence and memory are revealed in the monumental forehead; his nose is enterprising and he has the snap mouth of the well-opinioned, corrected by an indulgent nether lip. It is the face of a character such as England often produced in those days and sometimes even now: a competent, thoughtful, self-sufficient face, with a hint of shyness which might indicate a preference for a sheltered life rather than a life of adventure, unless it were adventures among books. And from this composite presentment we may safely infer a genial yet reclusive, diffident yet self-opinionated man, who might be friendly but not demonstrative, tolerant yet irascible, and who would suffer fools sadly rather than gladly. (p. XX)

I wonder if you’d say that Marisha Pessl has an indulgent nether lip?


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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